Thursday, 22 March 2012

The environmental cost of ICT

Have you ever stopped to compare the costs, both to budgets and the environment, of using technology in the classroom with pen, paper and books? Calculations are hard to do in this field because there are so many variables, but....

If you were to equip a class of 30 students with iPads, you would be looking at an investment of at least £10 000, assuming some kind of discount on a set of cheapest non 3G iPads. If you then added the cost of re-charging and factored in the carbon footprint of manufacturing, shipping and energy use, it is easy to see why old tech might be considered, in actual cost, but especially in environmental terms, an attractive option.

A set of text books with a similar life to the iPads would cost around £350. A set of repromasters might set you back about £70. If you assume photocopying at about 5p a copy, then do a calculation based on, say, 120 copies a week over 36 weeks, you get an additional cost of about £45. There is the energy cost of photocopying, a small cost on file paper or exercise books (from sustainable forests).

A computer base shared with other departments in the school, the situation in most schools, is a sensible compromise. You get the benefit of computer interactivity without the huge cost of multiple sets of laptops or tablets. The computers may be in use most of the time and be cheaper to maintain when they go wrong. Cheaper tablet alternatives to the iPad may be another option, but how usable are they?

Environmentally, a laptop may be preferable to a PC in terms of power consumption, but could be less reliable, cost more to maintain and need replacing sooner. A tablet consumes less energy, but is expensive and less flexible in use.

Just using a single computer, interactive board and projector uses significant amounts of energy.

Are we heading towards transformed classrooms with tablets or notebooks for all? I hope not. Old tech books, pen and paper have plenty going for them. They are tried and tested, work well for most students and, above all, leave a much lower carbon footprint.

It would be interesting to calculate how much energy would be required to enable all students in the developed and developing world to learn with the aid of computers. Unless we can supply this energy cleanly, then it may be worth questioning how much tech we should be using in schools and colleges.


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